DARRELL KIPP: THE BASIC LIFE — Part 2

BAKER AND HIS MURDERING CAVALRY, No scouts in the picture.

Darrell Kipp’s great-grandparents were murdered in the Baker Massacre. His name was Kipp only because the Kipp who (with Cobell) was a scout for the Cavalry — and who accidentally led the cavalry to the wrong camp — in remorse adopted as many orphaned children as he could. The massacre was recent enough that survivors were still living in the Sixties. In time other Kipps were part of his genealogy. He said, “Kipps are like beer cans. They’re everywhere.”

Darrell told about going to the show house in Browning carrying a flashlight because there were no streetlights. Life was basic but cheerful, as stark as other parts of the world that Americans don’t know. When a professor friend arranged for Darrell to go to Bulgaria as a visiting scholar, he stayed with a distinguished professor who lived in a simple stone house furnished with a one-legged bed (two sides were fixed to the wall) and a peg for the solitary change of clothes. The family gave him the single egg their hen laid daily and the professor made him toast by laying the sliced bread on the top of the woodstove, just as Darrell’s grandfather had done.

Until then he had thought he knew what poverty was and there was enough similarity that he was flooded with emotion. Afterwards in my shabby little house, he said with passion, “Mary, your house compared to theirs is opulent.” The word was part of his reading vocabulary rather than being used in conversation, so he pronounced it “oh-pulent.”

A short film called “Black Foot, White Hand” shows Darrell walking through the villages and countryside, respectfully attending a mosque, and joking with the little kids who inevitably came to find out about him and walk with him. He visited a spring, holy ground, and was completely there, with the people.

Darrell’s family of cousins tended to be readers: Uphams; McKays; Clarke Wissler’s informant David Duvall, who finally committed suicide in front of the Kipp hotel. They succeeded in whatever schooling they had, which ranged from primary school to post graduate degrees, and were early in crossing the socioeconomic barrier between the janitor and the classroom teacher.

What made Darrell unique was his sense of humor at the absurdity of it all and his determination to be dignified, forgiving, and even noble in the face of many insults and assaults. He used to say that he had instructed his friends that if he ever ran for tribal council, they should just kill him. Yet for many years he accepted the thankless task of serving as an appellate tribal judge, dealing with cases that were essentially unsolvable and full of rancor — even danger. Only very rarely did a flinch or a wince show his underlying outrage at the constant indignities of being “the Indian.”

Resisting the idea of both “chief” and “shaman,” Darrell chose the path of the scholar and educator, which his mother proudly supported, but he also picked up a few tricks from the Kipp side of the family, whose entrepreneurial spirit was remarkable. Thus he was on the board of Siyeh, the “wholly owned subsidiary” of the tribe that finally began to make a profit because it was insulated by its own board from tribal privateering and meddling.

But he was not a greedy man. Every morning he loaded a few five dollar bills into his wallet because he knew he was likely to be approached by people begging for a little help. He never passed judgment on his friends for their drinking and violence. When he found those sunk in despair and lying passed out in the street, he took them home and put them on his couch to sleep it off. He had had a period of despair in his own life when he realized the height and slipperiness of “Indian” success.

Maybe the last year or so was hard when he saw the limits of what he personally could do. The demands on his time and energy were enormous as he crossed the country in airplanes, speaking and counseling and being on panels. He was determined not to accept government money and therefore governmental ownership.

As a boy, he had enrolled at Eastern Montana College without any idea what it really meant. Like many of us who made that jump, not just Indians, he discovered that his education had woefully unprepared him — it was barely a beginning — and also found out for the first time what it meant to be upper class in Montana, not the Ivy League. That came later.

Darrell’s wife, Roberta, developed her own career as a public school administrator. While their son was growing up, she lived apart in Missoula so the boy could go to good schools, but he was included in Indian doin’s. In summer the family lived in a simple cabin on the shore of St. Mary’s Lake and when Darren grew up, he built his own cabin a little further along.

Living in Browning and working at the public school, Roberta organized a circle of students who wished higher degrees and arranged for them to study by extension so they pulled each along along. Once I attended a kitchen Friday celebration featuring “red beer” (beer with tomato juice) and as I recall Eloise Cobell was there. Darrell teased me about it for years, since I’m pretty much a non-drinker. “See? Even white men are not so virtuous!” Eloise was another tribal person holding her own with white “suits.”

In a situation with contrast between white privileged people and indigenous achieving people, friendships develop based on the difference in experience. Once Piegan Institute was given $100,000 and Darrell thought they were enormously wealthy. I had been married to Bob Scriver and helped build an empire said to be worth $11,000,000 at his death. (I was long gone by then.) I said, “$100,000 is not really a lot of money for a school with buildings, payrolls, expenses.” He didn’t like me saying this at the time, but six months later he said, “You were right. It’s not much.”

I was not the only white consultant/friend but none of us tried to push Darrell out of the way, only to supply what information he needed, to help as we could. It was important that Piegan Institute be specifically and totally an immersive enterprise as well as language. No one called the shots except Darrell, his board including Dorothy Still Smoking, and his staff.

Many a story was told, many a scholar took notes, many a town kid took his first walk in woods there at Darrell’s cabin. When any Canadian Blackfoot family failed to cross the border before it closed, they crashed at Darrell’s, rolling up in blankets on the floor in the old way. The cabin was a cross between a think tank and a sanctuary.